Book fairs have long been an industry staple, providing publishers with opportunities to present their newest offerings to booksellers and others. As the industry has evolved, and the pandemic has demonstrated the efficacy of virtual events, book fairs have remained viable, with most doing so by adding digital or hybrid components.
The granddaddy of all U.S. book fairs is the one that took place every spring between 1947 and 2019 during the American Booksellers Association’s annual conference of booksellers, authors, and industry professionals.
“The publishers decided, all these booksellers are coming together, let’s promote our books,” Oren Teicher, the former ABA CEO, said, “and the rest is history.”
Initially called Buyers’ Book Browse, the first such book fair took place the afternoon of May 14, 1947, the last
day of the three-day ABA Convention and Trade Show inside the Hotel Astor in New York City; PW reported that attendance was approximately 2,000, including 700 booksellers.
“It kept growing and growing,” Teicher says, outgrowing in the early ’70s its longtime venue in the garage at the Shoreham Hotel in Washington, D.C. . “When I first came to ABA in the late ’80s, there were a limited number of convention centers that were big enough to hold it. The late ’80s, early ’90s, we had the largest numbers of people. The show was full of other retailers, not just bookstores, and a lot of librarians. The international piece of the business kept growing—that continued through the mid-’90s.”
In 1995, the year that the show’s sale to Reed Exhibitions was completed, it was held for the first time at McCormick Place in Chicago. PW reported that it “seemed likely that the total [attendance] would handily exceed 40,000, making it the largest ABA convention ever.” (PW later revised that figure to 38,000.)
Even as attendance remained high in 1996, with 37,500 total attendees, indie booksellers expressed some frustration; as bookseller Carla Cohen, co-owner of Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., told PW, publishers “were busy with rights people” rather than booksellers. For their part, publishers voiced concerns about the return upon their financial investment, and international visitors balked at Reed’s proposal to permanently situate the show in Chicago.
After four years in the Windy City, the show, now called BookExpo, traveled around the U.S. for the next decade before settling in New York City between 2009 and 2019, except for a return to Chicago in 2016.
While Reed’s raising admission prices in the late ’90s affected attendance, Teicher notes, so did the growth of the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs. And Amazon’s dominance in the marketplace had an impact, as the online retailer drove bricks-and-mortar stores out of business. From a high of 5,500 members with 7,000 stores in 1995, ABA’s membership was almost halved by 2001, with 2,794 members—although, Teicher points out, ABA had also tightened qualifications for membership at that time.
ABA membership dropped to 1,401 stores in 2009, before slowly rising in 2010 and maintaining that upward trend. In 2021, ABA reported 1,700 bookstore members.
Another important factor explaining BookExpo’s decline in recent years: “People started communicating differently,” Teicher says. “You could sit at your computer and find out what books Random House was publishing. You didn’t need to get on an airplane and hang out on a trade show floor to find out about new books.”
Following what turned out to be the last in-person BookExpo, drawing fewer than 2,000 booksellers among its 8,260 total attendees, PW reported on May 31, 2019, of bookseller disappointment concerning the absence of “prominent publishers that didn’t exhibit this year,” including Abrams, Chronicle, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Quarto. And, PW added, one “large independent publisher said that his biggest frustration was the number of would-be authors who were pitching books.”
The following spring, BookExpo was postponed due to Covid and then canceled, replaced by six days in July 2020 of virtual programming. PW Daily reported on Dec. 1, 2020, that BookExpo was being “retired,” as organizers vowed to “explore new ways to meet the community’s needs.”
U.S. Book Show
PW quickly stepped in to fill the gap left by Reed, hosting the three-day virtual U.S. Book Show on May 25–27, 2021, which kicked off with a recorded keynote by Oprah Winfrey. The 6,300 registrants included 900 media representatives. The show featured a virtual book fair with 150 booths, where publishers displayed their offerings and hosted author appearances. The book fair alone drew 3,600 unique visitors.
The inaugural U.S. Book Show was a great success, with PW editor-in-chief Jim Milliot telling the New York Post afterward, “The show exceeded every benchmark we had.”
At press time, the second U.S. Book Show is scheduled for May 24–26, 2022. It will be a hybrid event in terms of programming and networking, as well as the book fair aspect.
“One key advantage to producing a hybrid book show is the range of participants who are able to attend remotely who might not be able to attend otherwise,” notes show manager Krista Rafanello. “The hybrid model allows the U.S. Book Show and other fairs to welcome attendees from all over the world.”
As the focus of BookExpo shifted, ABA launched Winter Institute in 2006 in Long Beach, Calif., drawing 360 booksellers from 200 stores that first year.
“It was a direct response to evolving membership priorities to place greater emphasis on education and professional development,” Teicher told PW in 2015. “Back then, our hope was to share the educational programming ABA presented at BookExpo with booksellers who were unable to attend the convention.”
Ever since Sara Gruen attributed the success of her novel Water for Elephants (Algonquin, 2007) to its discovery by those 360 booksellers assembled in Long Beach, Winter Institute has been regarded as a show where booksellers will discover future indie bestsellers—in the exhibit area, at receptions where large numbers of authors sign books for booksellers, or in the galley room, stacked high with ARCs.
In January 2020 Wi15 was held in Baltimore, drawing 800 booksellers from across the U.S. and beyond. A year later, the nation was in lockdown and ABA hosted a virtual conference without capping attendance as it always has done for the in-person institutes. A record number of booksellers—2,000—registered for that virtual conference, inspiring ABA to schedule two conferences in 2022: Wi17, to be in-person in Cincinnati, February 13–16, and a two-day virtual conference called Snow Days three weeks later. However, a spike in Covid-19 cases led to cancellation of the February event, and rescheduled the March event, which the ABA called a “virtual bookselling retreat,” from two days to three, March 8–10. It drew 800 booksellers, the same number attending the last in-person institute.
Reflecting upon the future, ABA COO Joy Dallanegra-Sanger says that Winter Institute will evolve in response to “what booksellers want moving forward,” adding, “A lot of people who didn’t have an opportunity to travel found value in a virtual event. More people can go from a bookstore if it’s virtual. That’s why we think virtual could stay with us.”
Regionals Step Up
Little more than a decade ago, PW published an update on the status of the regional bookseller associations, entitled “Keeping Regional Shows Relevant.” In it, then–bookselling editor Judith Rosen wrote, “For the past five years, publishers have talked about the need to consolidate trade shows—and lower their costs. A struggling economy, the increased power of Amazon, and the erosion of print book sales to e-books have only accelerated calls for change, from not only publishers but from some booksellers as well.”
Since then, the Northern California and Southern California Independent Bookseller Associations have merged into the California Independent Booksellers Alliance, and the Midwest Independent Booksellers and Great Lakes Independent Booksellers Associations have for the past decade cohosted a joint trade show that alternates between the two regions each year—though it has been a virtual conference for the past two years.
Ironically, the pandemic, coupled with the demise of BookExpo, has breathed new life into regional bookseller shows. In the absence of a national booksellers conference and in expectation that the pandemic will eventually end, all are stepping up their efforts in ways designed to best serve their bookstore members.
While some of the regional bookseller organizations are going ahead and scheduling a traditional in-person spring forum and fall conference, others are taking this opportunity to switch things up, with the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance and New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association partnering in switching their emphasis from a fall conference to spring and summer gatherings. “The fall has long been challenging to meet in-person,” notes SIBA executive director Linda-Marie Barrett, “because of hurricane season and other unpredictable weather—and football.” The two organizations plan, for the third year in a row, a virtual booksellers conference, which will be held August 8–11 and feature online education, publisher “booths,” and new title presentations.
The two organizations are also partnering on a beefed-up spring conference, as well as individual spring gatherings for each organization. SIBA intends to transform what traditionally is “a smallish gathering” into “the biggest in-person gathering of the year,” Barrett says. “The theme this spring is ‘Come Together,’ inspired by the Beatles’ song and a Peter Max art vibe.” Programming for the May 17–18 gathering will include author appearances, bookseller education, book buzz with reps and editors, a tour of regional bookstores, “and at least one special evening event to bring everyone to the bar for fun, schmoozing, and author discovery.”The Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association, one of two regionals to hold an in-person fall show in 2021, also is pushing forward with plans to grow both its fall and spring gatherings. “Our fall show filled a major gap in 2021,” says M&P executive director Heather Duncan. “It was extremely energetic and successful. We intend to up the ante with the exhibit hall and other publisher/vendor opportunities at this fall’s show,” to be held in Denver, September 29–October 1. Like SIBA, MPIBA is doubling down on spring gatherings by hosting two in April: one held in Golden, Colo., April 6–8, the other in San Antonio, Tex., April 20–22.
As for the Pacific Northwest Independent Booksellers Association, which also held an in-person show in 2021 and has scheduled its 2022 fall trade show in Tacoma, Wash., for September 18–20, executive director Brian Juenemann hopes to bring “PNBA pop-up events to areas outside of our Portland and Seattle member centers,” providing booksellers in “secondary areas of member concentration” with opportunities to “celebrate their craft outside of their stores.”
The AWP Conference was launched in 1973 by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, with 16 speakers and six events; a book fair became part of the proceedings in 1986. “There was a hotel ballroom, and when they opened the doors, if [a vendor] put their hand on a table, it was their table,” AWP executive director Cynthia Sherman says of that first book fair. “It was very Wild West.”
As creative writing programs proliferated in the ’90s and ’00s, AWP continued to grow as it moved around each spring to a different U.S. city, though it has taken place in Canada several times. In 2007, the first year that PW covered AWP, there were 5,200 attendees at the four-day event in Atlanta, and the book fair featured 373 exhibits. The following year, AWP was held in New York City, and PW reported that while “there were dozens of readings and panels, the real action took place at the book fair: three floors of booths from more than 400 exhibitors,” adding, “It’s become an indie publishing expo.”
“The gathering has become so central to the lives of indie presses,” PW reported in 2008, “Fiona McCrae, publisher of Graywolf, thinks of it as ‘the one week of the year where we feel like we are on the right path after all. For most of the rest of the year, we don’t have such direct contact with our audience.’ ”
Rick Simonson, chief book buyer at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company, has attended about half a dozen AWP conferences, explaining that he goes “more for the book fair than the other stuff.” AWP is evocative of “the old BookExpo,” he says. “The book fair has all the small presses; it’s the biggest concentration of literary presses in one place. I always find new stuff there.”
In 2019, a record 15,000 people attended AWP in Portland, Ore., and for the fifth year in a row, the book fair featured 800 exhibits. Everything changed a year later, when AWP took place in San Antonio, Tex., Mar. 3–7, 2020—just as the U.S. braced for the pandemic. Approximately 50% of both attendees and exhibitors canceled their plans.
“Traffic at the event was notably sparse,” PW reported. “The registration area was all but empty, and fully half of the vendor tables at the fair were unoccupied.” The conference was held virtually in 2021, drawing 6,000 attendees and featuring 300 exhibits at the virtual book fair. “We had Zoom rooms for all the exhibitors,” Sherman recalls. “But we didn’t take into consideration how introverted many writers are. It seemed like a great idea, but it was not successful—it seemed overwhelming for a lot of people.”
AWP took place in Philadelphia on March 23–26 and was a hybrid affair for its 7,000 attendees, with several in-person events being livestreamed, along withrecorded virtual events. As for the book fair, there were approximately 500 exhibitors, all in-person. “A book fair doesn’t translate to virtual,” Sherman says. “You can provide authors, but there just isn’t that same kind of interaction and connection and engagement. The in-person component is the gold standard.”